The Accidental Vegetarian

It started, quite honestly, because we’re broke.

There’s a period that begins right before Christmas, and extends until the middle of January where I don’t get a paycheck, and there’s another 2-month-long stretch in the summer where I am, for all intents and purposes, unemployed. We live off what Dustin makes in those months, and it’s enough to pay the bills and to buy a few groceries to fill in what’s missing from our pantry.

And what’s missing from our pantry now is meat. Well, we’ve got one chicken breast (with bones), one log of God-knows-what. Pork loin, maybe? Though I don’t remember buying it. And we’ve got 5 links of mild smoked sausage bought from our farmer’s market, made from pigs that are pasture-raised and humanely slaughtered.

I’m saving the sausage for a special treat, or until I’ve got more money coming my way and I can afford a steak. The chicken and the God-knows-what will not be eaten by me.

I found, in those odd 2 days where we didn’t have money for groceries that it was actually really easy to eat meatless. We’d been doing it for dinner for a few nights in a row, and the meat I was eating was consumed at breakfast in the form of bacon and at lunch in the form of Boar’s Head Ovengold Turkey Breast. Lest you think we’re starving, and you call my mother or mother-in-law to send in reinforcements, we are definitely NOT starving–our pantry, fridge, and freezer is extraordinarily well-stocked with beans, rice, canned tomatoes, veggies, peanut butter, jam, no less than 4 bags of flour, a frozen cake, a pie crust (and the stuff to fill it), popcorn, oatmeal, granola, cereal, bagels, milk, eggs, butter, cheese, sandwich meat, assorted herbs and spices, canned fruit, and who knows what else lurking in the dark recesses of that bottom shelf. And if all else fails and we find ourselves truly hungry, I’ll drive to my grandmother’s where she keeps stocked not only her normal fridge and pantry, but no fewer than TWO upright freezers, ANOTHER refrigerator, and no less than 12 utility shelves of canned vegetables and preserves. And should she run out, we’ll drive to my great aunts’ house, where Bert and Fant keep an entire utility room filled with foodstuffs. And should they run out, there is undoubtedly another sister waiting in the wings with her preserves and frozen loaves of bread. God bless those that grew up with nothing, and share it all.

Among all of our food, though, there is little meat, and it hit me, somewhere between looking up a soup recipe that call for meat and planning my food-themed composition class, that hey, I could maybe do this.

My mom does, after all. She’s been a vegetarian now for a year. (The only meat I know that she ate was a bite of my Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing that I served just a few days after our wedding. And to be honest? I don’t think she liked it. 11 months of meatless living will change your tastes.) And she is the most unlikely of vegetarians. She grew up in what I can only call the backwoods of Mississippi. The Country. They farmed their own meats and vegetables. Pictures exist of their slaughtering day. She took a few animal husbandry classes at Mississippi State, and she would hear the sounds of pigs being slaughtered over her lecturer. Worrisome noise, no doubt, but how things were done–are done, still, in some places. Her family, and my father’s family, too, are nothing if not meat-eaters. Meat was, when I was a child, the center of our family meals. We had it at every meal that was cooked (so all meals except cereal and oatmeal breakfasts, but even then we sometimes got a piece of ham or bacon).

So even though I knew she’d been reading books by Michael Pollan and his ilk, it came as kind of a shock, no, a big surprise, when Mom announced she was a vegetarian. “What about Dad?” I asked, “What about my favorite Persian chicken and rice?”  Dad would fend for himself if he didn’t like what Mom cooked–that’s been the rule as long as I can remember. You ate what Mom cooked, and if you didn’t, you had a sandwich. My Persian chicken and rice? Good thing I taught my husband how to cook it, because Mom was done with that particular favorite.

I’m not going to be so presumptuous to try to explain my mother’s motivations for her vegetarianism, but I know her increasing knowledge of what actually goes on in America’s “farms” terrified and disgusted her, both physically and morally. I’m sure, at some level, she looked back into her own childhood of farm-raised animals, quickly slaughtered, and understood that her family’s farming is entirely different than what Tyson or Smithfield calls farming. That what Tyson and Smithfield calls farming is not at all farming, but the mass torture and murder of millions of animals, who before their cruel death were treated perhaps even more cruelly in life, stacked on top of each other, sick, pumped with more antibiotics than is even fathomable, smothering and dying in filth beyond reckoning. And maybe there was the recognition that to refuse to consume these animals is nearly impossible for most people. Labels like “free-range,” “all-natural,” “cage-free,” and even “organic” mean next-to-nothing in today’s corporate-run “farmland.” And to buy these labels means to spend sometimes as much as 5x more for a chicken breast than you would otherwise. Worth the price? Probably, if you can’t live without meat, but not feasible for her, or for most. And maybe my mother got to the point in her thinking where eating animals–any animal–did not, could not sit well in her conscience. I can’t know for sure, you’ll have to ask her.

But I do know that what sparked her vegetarianism was the increasing attention to America’s farming. I know she’s read, at least dabbled in reading, Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Food, Inc.), Jonathan Safran Foer (Eating Animals), Gail Eisnetz (Slaughterhouse), Deborah Koons (The Future of Food), Melanie Joy (Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows), and more. Hell, it was me, in some small part, who pointed her to some of these books and films, with my constant yammering about how important local and organic foodways were. I knew about slaughterhouses, about the environmental, economical, and frankly, personal impact these operations have on everyone, from the bottom up and back down again. I knew these things, and as Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Eating Animals, I was interested in changing my ways, “Until I wasn’t. At which point I had to change my life. Until I didn’t” (7).

I used my husband as an excuse, my income, too. And those aren’t bad reasons, necessarily, but recently, in (re-reading) the books I’d read before, in reading new ones, in re-thinking about just what our food system does to our bodies, our environment, immigrants, American workers, the strength of our nation, and our souls and spirits, those excuses were no longer powerful enough to keep me eating meat.

Or more specifically, CAFO meat, which is to say, 99% of meat. I don’t know if I will ever stop being a meat eater. I love meat, and right now (this may change the more I read and think and talk), I don’t see anything wrong with eating animals that have been raised and killed humanely (and yes, I realize there seems to be an immediate controversy in the words “killed” and “humanely”). So I’ve decided, I was forced, even, by my shaken conscience, to stop eating CAFO meat. That if I would eat meat, I would eat only meat that was farm-raised, locally raised, and humanely slaughtered (humane both to the animal and the worker doing the killing for me).

This caveat limits me. A lot. I’m blessed to live in an area that has a farmer’s market that sells local meat, milk, butter, and cheese, and even further blessed that this meat is pasture-raised, fed the food it was meant to eat, and slaughtered right here in town (well, on the outskirts, as I imagine most slaughterhouses are). I’m unlucky in that they only raise beef and pigs. No chicken or fish. For health reasons, I didn’t eat much beef and pork before, perhaps only once a week. And unlucky because in order to eat that beef and pork, I would have to pay real wages for it (when you pay $6 for a CAFO chicken, I’d argue that you’re actually paying much, much more), which I don’t mind in principle, but I need electricity, too. I’m lucky that the sausage (andouille, smoked, chorizo!) are affordable, and I will be able to afford the ground beef and chuck, too. But steaks and roasts and those large, hearty cuts of meat will no longer be an option for us, most likely, save special events like birthdays.  I say this is unlucky, but rather than looking at this in terms of what I will no longer enjoy, I need to think of this in terms of what will be opened to me. Better health. A good conscience. Sense that I will be breathing better air. The knowledge that the meat I’m eating (and not eating) isn’t forcing a worker into harsh and life-threatening conditions. The power in taking just a little bit of power away from the bad guys.

I know there are a lot of people that look on vegetarians as a class of elitists out to proselytize the masses into feeling guilty and to make themselves feel good. Anthony Bourdain, whom I adore fiercely is top among those. And there are an equal number of people who will look at my partial and accidental vegetarianism as not good enough, as just another person participating in a hipster fad. I hesitate to call myself an organitarian, and I’m not a vegetarian, as meat-eating is in my future. I’m not a locavore, and I’m certainly not a revolutionary. There’s not a word for the person I am right now, the person I’m trying to be. And perhaps that’s a good thing. We let our labels get in the way of thought, sometimes, and hopefully, my actions will be enough.

About AshleyGee

I'm a graduate instructor at a completely Southern (Football, Rush Week, and lots of "Hey Y'alls!") university. I teach freshman comp, study
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3 Responses to The Accidental Vegetarian

  1. Pingback: Days 22-27: « Saying Grace

  2. Minda says:

    I’m digging your blog and I really relate to this post.

    I have tried a couple of times over the past few years to stop eating meat. Like you, I never said that I was giving up meat forever and ever, amen but it was something that I wanted to try to do. I didn’t make it very long at any of my attempts but it’s still something that I want to try again. In fact, I almost started again on January 1 but I have committed myself to another cooking project that will require me to eat meat. So, it’s something that I’ll get back to eventually.

    We don’t eat a lot of meat. My husband is practically a vegetarian. My problem is that I like really BAD meat: bacon, sausage, ribs, fried chicken wings, etc. I’ve cut back a LOT over the past years. I often choose the vegetarian option when we eat out. I used to think that you couldn’t eat pizza without pepperoni and now I rarely order it. I’ve made progress.

    I don’t think that it’s wrong to eat animals. But I do think it’s wrong to mistreat animals and I fear that modern farming is no longer humane nor healthy. I buy my eggs from a guy I work with who raises his birds free range and feeds them organic food and basically treats them like pets. I feel good about it. I am trying to find more local farmers to buy our meat from but it’s been hard.

    I also try to avoid labels. I don’t think there is a word for someone who wants to avoid meat but eats dairy, eggs and seafood. So, I just order the veggie sammich and keep my views to myself usually. Good luck to you in your new adventure!

    • AshleyGee says:

      That’s so awesome, Minda! Every little bit helps, and I’m so stoked that you and your husband have cut back, trimmed corners, and made conscious decisions about carnivorism. It’s been easy so far for me, less so for my husband, but we’re going to keep going with it. I can’t turn back now; I know too much!

      And who doesn’t like a lot of bad meat? I could live off sausage. Well, I couldn’t really, but I could try. Good thing for me I like spinach just as much.

      You’re so lucky to have a local egg-source! I’m jealous. I want to be the crazy lady with chickens in my back yard one day. Have you tried looking up your city on the CSA site? Hopefully there’s a local meat source nearby. Otherwise, it’s really, really hard to find meat that isn’t a product of factory farming. That’s why I can’t eat chicken anymore!

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